An extract from Chapter Three of The Children of the Lost
I remember the silence.
Verity pushed her way through the early morning crowds, her cloak drawn tight around her shoulders against the chill, her ears ringing from the cries of vendors.
As I grow older, memories of my youth become so vivid. It was the first time I had ever walked down a deserted street – the first time my only company had been the ringing of my footfalls on the cobbles, and the misting of my breath in the air. I was a young man – proud, energetic, ambitious. I had just seen my twentieth summer and my whole life lay before me.
My path was set that day, sixty-five years ago. One day, one meeting, can change everything.
The stench of sewage filled the air, and Verity was forced to stop, leaning on a pile of discarded crates. It had been so long since she had been out of the Directory that the common streets turned her stomach, and in all her thirty summers she had never ventured into this part of the city before – where the stone-clad barracks of the Scorpio quarter met the curious stalls of Sagittarius. It was not the slums, but only vendors whose fortunes were failing tried to do business in the shadow of the prison.
I lingered a little amidst the elegant buildings of the Virgo district before going to meet him. In that moment of half-light, when the sky glowed, but before the sun had quite risen above the rooftops, I could believe the city empty, and I her ruler. It was something I liked to imagine, when I opened the shutters in my tower room in the university.
Now, I can climb the tall towers of the Directory any time I feel able to make the ascent, but I rarely do. The secret dream of power was just a young man’s fantasy, the reality is so much harder.
Verity turned her face to the wall as a squad of receivers, decked out in their midnight blue cloaks, marched past. She could not risk being recognised. She had disguised herself - letting down the black hair that she normally kept so tightly braided, and even rubbed powder into her dark skin to make it lighter. If this ever got back to the Directory, she would have nowhere to run.
He was waiting outside the house. Even here, where there was no-one to see, he held his tall frame stiff and proud. He was a little younger than I, and yet the frown lines were already carved into his brow.
‘So, you’re here,’ he said. Normally his tone was confident, almost arrogant, but this morning he whispered.
‘You think I’m not capable of walking across the city on my own?’ I asked, with a wry smile, ‘As I recall, I wasn’t the one with the sheltered upbringing…’
‘You’re sure you weren’t followed?’ he muttered, glancing around. I had never seen him scared before. Never even considered the possibility that he could be scared.
‘I’m sure, Stelli,’ I said, reassuringly, ‘Now come on, tell me what this is all about…’
The guard squinted down at the smooth glass ball, tiny in his large, grubby hands. Verity held her breath. The others had refused it, even though the offer was a good one. In fact, it was too good. Prison guards knew when to be suspicious.
He flicked it with one finger. A swirl of shimmering mist danced within it, leaving a pale, milky glow.
‘It’s a memory,’ she said, at last, just to break the silence. The guard wasn’t stupid, he knew what it was: A perfect moment of another’s subconscious, her own – resonant, affecting – they said it was a high like no other: a chance, for an hour to two, to be someone else.
She would have called it priceless, but that would be ludicrous. In Agora, everything had its price.
The guard shook his head.
Stelli struck the door three times with the head of his cane.
‘Doesn’t look like much,’ I muttered, stuffing my hands into the pockets of my topcoat, and gazing up at the modest house of red sandstone. ‘Hardly the place for your family to keep their darkest secret.’
‘Perhaps I should suggest to my father that they invest in a cobweb-hung mausoleum, complete with sinister music,’ Stelli replied, bitingly, ‘or maybe, just maybe, the family thinks that something like this is best kept out of sight.’
‘On that subject,’ I said, hearing footsteps approaching from behind the door, ‘are you ever planning to tell me what this great secret is?
Stelli put his head on one side. And then, for the first time, I saw him smile, pleased to know more than I did, for once.
‘It’s not so much what, as who…’
Verity walked away from the prison. In a way, she felt relieved. She had tried to follow her conscience, despite the danger, but fate was against her. As always, she was at the mercy of greater forces.
She wished again that she could have used the tunnels. They would have brought her here directly from the safe and silent halls of the Directory, without braving the open streets.
But the Director must never know of this journey.
Distractedly, her fingers closed around the tiny glass sphere. She would keep hold of this. She hadn’t wanted to give it up. It was a precious memory, from when she was a little girl of ten summers. Before she ever came to work at the Directory. Back when she was happy, and her parents took her to play in the sun.
She felt a tap on her shoulder. She tensed, but made herself turn slowly, as if she was doing nothing wrong.
The man was tall and lanky, but stood slouched. At first, he looked just like anyone else on the streets around the prison – his clothes threadbare, his chin unshaven and his stringy blond hair matted. But the eyes were quite different. They had a presence that stopped Verity from walking away.
‘Need to get in?’ He said, lazily, jerking his head over his shoulder, towards the prison.
Cautiously, Verity nodded. He didn’t have the look of an undercover receiver, and Verity had briefed a few of those in her time. The man’s hand reached into his jacket pocket, and pulled out a leather pouch. He opened it. Inside, Verity saw the soft shimmer of several more memory pearls.
‘Care to add to my collection?’ He asked, holding it out towards her.
Verity hesitated. She doesn’t like the thought of this stranger taking her memories. She pictured him, sitting in some alleyway, his head lolling and eyes vacant, living her life. Feeling what it was like to be her, back when she was a child, and the world was so very different. It made her shudder.
But what choice did she have?
A few minutes later, a shriek of ‘thief!’ rang out. The lanky man ran from the scene of his crime, a bag of stolen chestnuts still hot in his hands. Three of the guards sprang forward to apprehend him. The crowd of vendors craned forward to get a better look.
In the confusion, none of the guards saw Verity slipping in through the open door...
Website and content © David Whitley - 2013
Author photographs by Gordon Ward
Background parchment image from www.myfreetextures.com